Lila Downsknows no boundaries. A striking beauty with powerhouse vocals that sound as though she swallowed an entire orchestra (heavy on the oboe), Downs has been recognized across the globe both for her extraordinary singing and for her talented storytelling through song. An entirely new and younger audience in this country discovered Downs after her vocals were featured in last year's Oscar-winning film Frida.
The singer, whose national tour stops at the University of Denver on November 15, hopes to inspire audiences with her colorful and emotionally packed performances. "Through music, I believe you can communicate and say things metaphorically. People like to find meaning in things," she says. "I just hope that my music can bring people together."
The only child of an Anglo-American father and a Mixtec-Indian mother, Downs began singing at age eight in a mariachi band. During her childhood, she walked a culturally diverse line between the United States and southern Mexico, eventually landing in Minnesota to study classical opera. She became discontented with the sterile college atmosphere, however, and dropped out of school to follow the Grateful Dead, selling jewelry on the street to subsidize her bohemian lifestyle. "I guess I felt like I was missing out on all these things happening around me," she says. "I wanted to become closer to the people and activists. It was one of the first times I was able to see life through a different perspective."
Never one to sit still for too long, Downs ditched the Deadheads after nine months and later returned to school and her music. She focused on her Oaxacan culture and began recording her passionate ancestral tales of struggle and beauty. Downs sings her poetry in five native Mexican languages, mixing traditional Meso-American rhythms, worldbeat, classical, jazz and even a hint of hip-hop on her three CDs.
Una Sangre(One Blood), Downs's latest project, is due out next March. The album will feature a theme of cultural unity, with an emphasis on women and their struggles. "I think it's important to appreciate the dark side as well as the lightness and brightness of life," Downs says. "I have a great admiration for women who are able to [be strong] but don't forget to be women."